Rolling in the dough

Mother-son business finds success with bagels.

By: Cynthia Koons
   WASHINGTON — He was welcomed into the bagel family at the age of 14, when he started rolling dough in an Old Bridge store. Years later, when he was ready to go into business for himself, his mother became the financier. Soon after, his son was an employee.
   For the Lillis family, bagels aren’t just for Sunday morning brunch. The bread rings are the reason Jim Lillis is awake at dawn every day, to begin his bagel-making operation at Jim’s Bagel Loft, 34H Robbinsville-Allentown Road.
   In a room behind the counter, Mr. Lillis spends the first few hours of his 5:30 a.m.-to-5:30 p.m. day turning 100 pounds of dough into nearly 50 dozen bagels. But despite making the bagels in such large quantities, Mr. Lillis doesn’t intend to sell his bagels in bulk amounts.
   "Our sandwiches go out one at a time," he said. "I’d rather sell them individually than in bags of dozens."
   Mr. Lillis’ history in the bagel business is a rich one, beginning when he was in middle school.
   "When I was in eighth grade my friends were working in the (bagel) store," he said. At the time, it was the only bagel store in Central Jersey — located in Old Bridge — and it served a primarily Jewish clientele.
   He worked there until 1979, when it moved to Manalapan. At that point, Mr. Lillis decided to go into business for himself in Twin Rivers.
   His mother was the owner of the Twin Rivers establishment, and subsequently seven additional stores, he said. She called herself a "partner."
   "She’s very generous with me," he said. Their Twin Rivers store became the factory that produced all the bagels for his many shops.
   "What I did was I had one factory and we made a great bagel and we sold them in our stores," Mr. Lillis said.
   Mr. Lillis isn’t the only remaining bagel-maker of those who worked with him in middle school, either. His former co-workers now own stores in Freehold, North Brunswick, Somerset and as far away as Boulder, Colo.
   "Most bagel stores that are in operation will know (us)," he said. "It’s in our blood so we stay with it."
   All of the Lillis family is involved with the new store — his teen-age son works behind the counter, his mother is the bookkeeper, his brother does the mechanics and cousins drop in regularly for a cup of coffee or a sandwich.
   "My son, he handles it all," mother Molly Lillis said. "I’m just going to take care of the ordering and the books and the money."
   Ms. Lillis has no intention of retiring from their mother-son business anytime soon.
   "I had seven months off and I was going crazy," she said of the time between the previous store’s closing and this one’s opening.
   And if it’s up to Mr. Lillis, this store may lead to another, once Town Center is completed in Robbinsville. He’s adding a computer soon for customers to join a mailing list.
   The first time he created a mailing list, he ran a "Bagels for Life" promotion that brought him one return customer for years. The customer, who won a bagel a day as a result of the contest, even visited from Florida to collect his dough.
   "Joel Jacobson, if you’re reading this — this is where your prize continues," Mr. Lillis said with a laugh.